Bangalore is a meteorological anomaly, when it comes to India. The air was crisp like mountain air without being as cold, due to the its location atop the Deccan plateau. In the nights, one could sip it, as you would a glass of wine, from suburban rooftops or high-rise balconies. If you weren't sipping on something else, of course.
Som recoiled his hands from the surprisingly cold, polished stone railing that ran the diameter of the roof of Avinash's house. It was without a doubt the biggest and most impressive house he'd seen in Bangalore - dwarfing the one his parent's owned and every other one in their complex. It was a relatively new construction, also on the out-skirts of town but there were only 30 villas in this complex, compared to the 450 in Som's. If Palm Meadows was where the CEOs lived, this was where the names on logos resided.
In the distance, they heard a familiar sound coming closer - Vinay's motorbike. He cut the engine a few yards from the front gate and glided to a stop. Som was slightly irritated with Vinay, for leaving him alone with Avinash, a relative stranger whom he was meeting for the first time that night. They had tried - really tried - to stoke the embers of their ill-fated conversation but after a while, signed an unspoken truce and just looked out at the lights of the nearby military airport. Avinash went downstairs to open the front door so that Vinay didn't have to wake the parents. The two of them emerged from the huge, square shaped Teak door that led from the 3rd floor to the roof. The theme of the house was maritime. Right through the middle of the 4 story behemoth, sprung a majestic wooden 'mast', around which the spiral staircase wound. The furniture was stylish, mostly wooden and usually rustic and went perfectly with the soft creams and egg-shell of the walls. On the roof were long, ribbed, curved benches made to look like South Indian fishing boats. From the roof, one could get 360° views of the area, which meant great panoramas of the old airport. Probably the most beautiful and unique (and hard to maintain!) part of the rooftop ensemble was the magnificent cream coloured cloth Shamiana that was draped from one end of the roof to the other. The 'sail' must have provided comforting shade during the day, thought Som, though he'd never visited before tonight. At least in Vinay's absence he'd gotten to take in the place.
"Got any stuff?" asked Avinash, enthusiastically.
"Are you mad? I'm going to ride my Enfield there man, no ways I'm smoking before I reach," replied Vinay in disbelief.
"Since when did you become such a good citizen," joked Som, "Don't tell me you've stopped your 'reefer rider' ways from school!".
"Balls. Cops are insane now, they check everyone, especially bikers" said Vinay, as he opened up the plastic bag on the table.
He had been sent to get food and he had delivered.
"I got the last order at Chungs. Just for me they kept the place open. Now who do you thank?" boasted Vinay.
Som and Avinash mumbled thank you's through mouths full of chili chicken and fried noodles. Though all three were well into their mid twenties, they still instinctively talked in hushed voices for fear of waking Avinash's infamously cranky parents below. They sat on the soft cushions that surrounded the circular table on that roof and ate and talked like they'd have done 10 years ago. High school habits, it seems, die hard.
"So are you coming tonight, Avinash?" asked Som.
"I don't know man... Goa Trance is not really my scene and I'd have to drive back alone"
"Just come man. You can pick people up on the way who will keep you company. We don't have to go by the ring-road."
"We'll see. Are you done with your chicken? Send some."
Avinash chose not to join Som and Vinay, in the end. His music tastes were more inclined towards metal and other forms of rock music - like many of Bangalore's English speaking youth. By the time the two of them left Avinash's house, it was past midnight and so they walked the bike out past the front gate of the complex before starting it up. Royal Enfield motorcycle engines send out some of the most beautiful, rugged tones a man is likely to come across but in a city that sleeps at 11 and in a complex that's probably in bed by 10, it was a better choice to avoid a run in with the security guards.
Som was terrified of motorcycles and yet he loved being passenger to great riders. Vinay had been riding motorcycles since he was 15 and after 9 years of experience zipping around Bangalore's unpredictable roads, certainly knew his way around a bike. The 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet was a classic motorcycle, styled like a British WWII unit with muscular contours and that iconic exhaust. Vinay ripped into gear and Som was lucky he'd had a hand on the rear handle. Som ducked behind Vinay's helmet as he always did when he was on bikes and closed his eyes. He looked up every few seconds to make sure they weren't dead and captured a mental image of the scene hurtling which he would paste into his mind's eye. Som smiled and then put his head back down. Whenever he felt Vinay's heart was taking over from his head, he'd tell him to "chill out". They raced along Airport Road, flying by the old Airforce Museum and slowing down as they passed the police station. Now that he lived in his own place and had his own job, there was no reason for Vinay not to have a valid driving license, like he used to do when the two were school boys.
Bangalore's main artery was silent. They pulsed through it, gear by gear, landmark by landmark. The grand Leela Palace hotel, the not so grand Diamond District apartment complex, the 'new' flyover that had taken two years to build and four to 'complete'. The air that whipped passed Som's ears was cold and moist and against it, he struggled to maintain his centre of gravity as Vinay slalomed towards MG Road. They 'clipped' through the city's central business district - to use local lingo - and turned north. Leaving the bright lights behind, they now cruised through upper-middle class residential areas to meet with the remainder of their party. The roads became narrower, the sleeping dogs more frequent and soon they came to a halt outside a very respectable eight story apartment block. Parked outside its gate, under a tree were four of their friends buying shots of milky, overly spiced tea from a vendor on a bicycle.
"Hey, buy some for us!" yelled Som as he dismounted the motorbike.
"Shut up Som!" came the loud whisper from beneath the tree, "Mad or what?"
A slim girl with shoulder length hair, a spaghetti top and tight jeans approached, arms out-stretched.
"Som!" she exclaimed, just as loudly as he had yelled but a few seconds earlier. He hugged Sonali tight and smiled and kissed her on the cheek. She was the first in the group of friends to greet him.
"This is my boyfriend, Rajat and his friend, Shrey. And this my friend, Aditi"
Som shook hands with the two guys and tentatively hugged Aditi, who was just as pretty as Sonali but a few inches shorter. She had come wearing large hoop earings, a loose, colourful skirt that reached her ankles and an equally flamboyant tie-die top. Vinay already knew the gang. He, Som and Sonali had gone to school together and had attended the same college as Rajat and Shrey, and met them all very regularly. Aditi, like Som, was new to their little circle. She was from Calcutta and only here for a couple of months to do an internship. The large silver 'Om' dangling from her necklace glinted under the streetlight beside them.
"Where is this party anyway?" Asked Som.
"Rajat, call and find out. They should have released the location by now" said Shrey, nodding at Som, "They never disclose the location before like an hour before it starts, otherwise the cops will show up and raid it and we'll be on tomorrow's fucking NDTV."
Rajat lit a cigarette and walked off the side, to make the call. These types of raves happened once every few months in Bangalore and only a select few knew about them. In a city where all nightclubs, bars and restaurants had to be closed by 11:30, they provided a few, well informed citizens with an occasional and much-cherished 'real party'. Som walked over to Vinay and the girls to strike up a conversation - he felt acutely uncomfortable being in a social situation and not mediating discussion of some sort. Sonali told Som about how work life in Bangalore was so different to college life and how she missed bunking lectures and how jealous she was of his British university experience. She was now working at her mother's design firm in a swanky part of Indiranagar. She was a carefree young woman who had done a BBA in Business Administration at the nationally reputed Christ College. Som knew so many like her. The well off girls and guys who stayed local and had no idea what they were going to with their lives other than do something, somewhere in their parents' businesses. She was one of the few who stayed behind in India for further studies, unlike the vast majority of her and Som's international school batch-matches. What was the point of spending money on a school education when you're kids weren't even going to go to a first world, right?
Rajat got their attention mid-conversation, "It's past Yelahanka. I know the place. Let's go quick cos I don't know what time it'll finish."
Shrey, Rajat, Sonali and Aditi got into the Corolla whilst Som swung a leg onto the back of the Bullet, dreading the thought of another 20 minutes of holding on to the iron rail behind him. Vinay followed behind the car and Som regretted not bringing a jacket, as the chilly August night pinned him back. The surrounding apartments turned into classic modest, detached one story houses and then into the rubble and vast expanses of industrial parks. In the distance, Som heard the unmistakable low drumming of a trance beat and caught glimpses through the trees, of bright lights flickering in the distance. The shoulder ache would surely be worth it.
The distant thuds and clicks grew closer every second. The lights flickered brighter around every bend. Som sensed that Vinay had felt it to and somehow had instinctively upped his pace. He began taking racing line around corners, accelerating out of them. Yet they were in almost total darkness on a single lane stretch of highway in the Deccan country side – not Monaco. The pace had quickened but the air that they were cutting through did not grow colder or more ill-tempered, perhaps it was the adrenaline that blocked out the elements for now. Only infrequent tube lights and the motorbike’s powerful headlight lit their way. It felt like being sucked through a vacuum cleaner.
They finally arrived at a large sloping field and slowed down upon seeing parked cars. There wasn’t a house for miles – only distant pin pricks of light on the horizon. Som got off as Vinay parked the bike in between two cars. Finally, after almost half an hour of being alone in the darkness, hands grasping the cold iron railing, Som was able to stretch out and see other people. There were all kinds of people. Bangalorean teenagers in typical untucked dress shirts, baggy jeans and white sneakers, chatted excitedly as they walked towards the stage area. There were older folks too, who had come in groups of 4 or 5, probably young professionals like Som and Vinay whose insatiable taste for a night of trance dancing could not be conquered by a 9-5 job and monthly bills. There were even foreigners! Som was brimming with curiosity. He asked some Russians where they were from and quickly made friends, like he’d done all through his life. The couple from St Petersburg were doing the standard India hippy pilgrimage.
"What is this man..." said Vinay, looking at his phone in disgust, "Rajat just texted saying the had to turn back cos the girls' parents wanted them home early for some reason. Something about a function tomorrow morning."
"I guess it's just you and me," sighed Som. He had been looking forward to spending time with Aditi especially but the universe had other plans with him tonight, it seemed.
It took about a minute to walk from the dusty car park to the grass field and stage. The DJ was called ‘Viva Shiva’ and was flanked by a camera man and what could only be his girlfriend, smoking beside him nonchalantly. The music was not quite what Som had expected but then again, his taste in psychedelic trance was very particular and he’d come with an open mind. The beat filled the air around him, reverberating through the chilly night. It rode the strobe lights and seemed to add extra sheen to the multicoloured lasers that jumped from side to side. Every now and again he’d change the pace of the track he was playing and give the crowd something to think about. Peddlers went from potential customer to potential customer. Som knew better than to buy from these seedy salesmen. He’d heard too many stories of cocaine cut with rat poison and hashish with liquorice. Vinay passed him a quarter full bottle of coke and rum that he’d stored under the Enfield seat and Som sipped as he moved to the music. They made their way through the crowd to front and centre where the sound from both speakers crashed together like giant swells of energy. The two of them surfed for a while. Som handed the bottle back to Vinay but he refused. Always responsible – that’s why Som liked Vinay so much. Though he had stayed in Bangalore for his undergraduate degree, he was as well rounded as any of Som’s friends. He worked as a graphic designer in a modest but promising firm in the suburbs. Vinay had been a bit of a bad-boy through their school days but the tragic death of his sister in a car crash had changed his life. He didn't turn into a monk over night, but he took fewer risks and seemed to value everything a little more. He spent more time thinking about what he was doing, eating or saying. His playful nature had remained but was channeled through thought rather than impulse, as it had been before. The run-ins with the cops had stopped and he had a steady job that his parents were proud of. Som could easily see the sadness in Vinay’s eyes when he went quiet for a moment and knew instantly that his thoughts were with his sister and try as me may, he could never erase the screech and smash of that fateful night, a year ago.
Som saw people in various states of ‘happiness’ around him. There were the dread-locked white men who had been doing the same two-step for the last three hours. A group of Japanese girls bounced and jived next to the speakers. Many of the younger men were puffing cheerfully on hash pipes and sending great clouds of white smoke into the reverberating air. There were dangerous empty beer bottles on the ground everywhere though Som hadn’t a clue where they came from, since this wasn’t a sponsored event. The Rs. 500 that they had paid at the car park went straight to the DJ and event organizers. This was Som’s first experience of a ‘rave’ – a word that makes regular members of the trance music scene cringe.
A distant scream interrupted Som’s muse, because it pierced the solid wall of sound and reached the two of them even at the front of the 500 strong crowd. Som and Vinay turned around at once and what they saw shocked them both. Almost in slow motion, Som dropped the plastic bottle of his mixed drink. There was a fight going on! Not between drunk revelers, but between a group of modesty dressed local men carrying fire torches and the group of slightly older Indians who had been dancing to Vinay’s right. To their horror, the rowdy villagers were harassing the group and even laying hands on the women who screamed in fury. It was like something out of a movie. From every direction more and more village men appeared carrying torches and flash-lights and yelling. The plug was pulled on the music and in a split second, all the euphoria that had garnished the melodic atmosphere evaporated. The air became tense and filled with the Kannada curses of the villagers and the yelps of men and women alike. Som backed away towards the gap between the stage and speakers and from a vantage point on the stairs, surveyed the terrifying scene. Vinay was crouched behind him, trying to call some of his friends whom he knew were at the concert. They counted at least 60 men of all ages wielding political party flags and lighting materials. Nearly all of them had formed groups of 5 or 6 and started man-handling attendees. Was this a movie? Was this the mob that hunts down the ogre in the village? The crowd was trying to escape to the car park but he saw in the distance, that there were 20 or so villagers blocking the route from the field to the highway. Som began to panic.
He saw the stage lights slowing being turned off and realized the futility of their situation. This was an illegal party so calling the police would be out of the question. It then struck him: the police were probably already on their way. This was Bangalore, the city were police would rather arrest then police. There were 6 or 7 different fights raging now. The men shielded their female friends from the crazed Kannada men. And then Som looked one of them directly in the eye, from about 30 yards away. The look they stared was telling – the short, thin man of about 30 with curly black hair wearing a white kurta and dhothi had a look of a man who had lost his ability to reason and was lashing out on adrenaline. There would be no talking to these people. How had they found the party? Who had leaked information about its location? And what justified the attack on these people and the damage to cars and property? Som was filled with anger but just as he got up to run towards the man, Vinay shouted in his ear.
“Dude! Som! The bike! Let’s get the fuck out of here! We’ll go by the service road!”
“What is this shit dude? Who are these villagers? Where are the police?”
“Fuck the police”, Vinay pleaded, “they will arrest you, not them. These fucks probably told them about it. They won’t be able to stop our bike from getting out, we’ll cross the field itself”
The two of them sprinted behind the stage area where they saw the DJ and the organizers salvaging their equipment in a rushed, frightened manner. Som thanked his luck that they’d come by motorcycle and not by car. As they neared the car park, he saw fist-fights and broken windows. And then from the highway came the blue and red lights and sirens. They passed the Russian couple who were crouched on the ground with two other foreign looking girls, behind their BMW X5.
“Get out of here guys, the cops are coming!” said Vinay as he gestured towards the service road, just across the field.
“But they block the road! The police block the way!” said the Russian, frantically.
“I know a way. Just follow me on the bike, your car can cross the field easily”
Vinay started up the engine which drew unwanted attention from a pair of older villagers. Som had barely whipped his right leg over the passenger seat before Vinay zoomed away. They checked the rear view mirror and saw the lights of the big SUV following them. Vinay cut the headlight to avoid the gaze of the police, who had arrived in droves. He maneuvered the heavy motorcycle expertly past jagged stones and after a minute they reached the service road on the other side of the chaos. One cannot underestimate the difficulty of handling a heavy motorcycle over uneven ground in almost complete darkness – that was the task that faced Vinay. Som stretched his neck around to get one last glimpse of the scene behind them. It was like something out of a nightmare. The police and the villagers fighting side by side, harassing men and women alike and screaming, either out of glee or contempt or a twisted sense of both. It occurred to him that the operation had been a joint effort. But who had given the rowdy village men the authority to lay a hand on anyone? The lawlessness of the situation was what irked Som the most. It was the dark side to India that he had ignored for so long. On the back of that motorcycle, he felt sick to his stomach. It was a good thing that the discomforting scene was getting smaller and quieter behind them.
After about 10 minutes, they were far enough away from the area to slow down and gather their thoughts on the side of the road. Under a flickering tube-light, the car and bike parked one in front of the other and everyone got down. At first no one said anything. The Russians were still in shock – one of them had lost their phone in the confusion.
“What…. What the hell was that?” stuttered Som.
“The cops… OK fine they were kinda supposed to be there… but those hallis? Who the fuck were they and where did they come from? This was a drug bust for sure. It happened in that Bannerghatta party last month, remember?”
“But why did they attack us? Shouldn’t the police have stopped them instead of us?” squeaked Andrei. His voice was quivering. This was not the India trip he was expecting.
“They were looking for drugs. They just want some rich faces to flash on the news tomorrow. Half these kids will pay them tonight itself and get out before morning. I would have straight away called my uncle. At least we got away…”
“But it is not right! It is not right what they did! Someone should have called the…” said Maria, his girlfriend. She realized the response her statement would get as she said it, and stopped short of saying what would sum up what the whole situation was about. Who polices the police? The only difference between the villagers and the police that night were their uniforms.
They had both disrupted that party for one reason – to vent their anger at this most ‘un-Indian’ evening and take some political prisoners. Som came to know this when he read the paper the next morning. His frown grew every column inch he read.
“Massive rave party busted last night!” said the headline, like a child waving an A+ graded essay in their parents face, “over 42 arrested including 17 foreigners. Rs. 20,000 worth of marijuana seized”.
“Police last night raided a rave party in north Bangalore at 1am. They booked 38 people for ‘dancing after hours’ and ‘dancing obscenely in a public place’.”
“Oh the horror,” smirked Som to himself.
“4 people were caught with Marijuana on them and have been held at Yelahanka Police Station. Of the foreign nationals arrested, 5 were Israeli, 5 Kenyan, 3 Japanese, 2 French and 2 Russian. This is the second case of a rave party bust in the last month. Please watch Times Now for more on the story.”
No mention of the villagers or what political banner they flew. No mention of the harassment and mistreatment. No mention of the bigger issue - the seemingly medieval laws against nightlife that savaged the weekends of Bangalore's youngsters. Som decided that morning, as he chomped down on fresh Papaya, that he would stick to legal parties for the rest of his stay in Bangalore. Last night was too close. It was a night he'd never forget - a night that seemed to sum up the unanswered questions that churn tumultuously beneath the surface of India's modernization.